Frank Sinatra is captured in this portrait in the National Portrait Gallery exhibit "American Cool."

Frank Sinatra is captured in this portrait in the National Portrait Gallery exhibit "American Cool."

What do we mean when we say someone is “cool”? From Dizzy Gillespie to Marlon Brando to Kurt Cobain, some figures define and embody the elusive qualities we associate with the concept. An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery explores the essence of cool through photographs of 100 Americans who possess the charisma, style and originality to become cultural icons.


  • Philip Kennicott Culture Critic, Washington Post
  • Joel Dinerstein Director, American Studies Program, Associate Professor of English, Tulane University; Co-curator and co-author, “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

What Is Cool?

“American Cool,” at the National Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7, explores pioneers of our culture through iconic photographs.

Take a look at some of the portraits featured in the show in the photo gallery below.


  • 13:07:19

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. What do we mean when we say someone is cool? Whether it's Miles Davis or Lauren Bacall or Kurt Cobain, some people seem to possess the elusive combination of charisma, style, originality and talent of a cultural icon. An exhibition now on at the National Portrait Gallery explores the concept of cool through photographs of 100 Americans from the past century or so who made an enduring mark on our culture.

  • 13:07:19

    NNAMDIAnd joining us to discuss this is Philip Kennicott. He is the Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning art and architecture critic. Phil Kennicott, good to see you again.

  • 13:07:27

    MR. PHILIP KENNICOTTThanks for having me.

  • 13:07:28

    NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios at WWNO in New Orleans is Joel Dinerstein. He's the Director of the American Studies Program and a Professor of English at Tulane University in New Orleans. He's the co-curator and co-author of "American Cool." That's the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington that runs through September 7th. His partner on this exhibition is Frank Goodyear, co-director of the Bowden College Museum of Art. Joel Dinerstein, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:07:57

    MR. JOEL DINERSTEINMy pleasure. Good to be here.

  • 13:07:58

    NNAMDIJoel, you and your co-curator, Frank Goodyear, spent five years putting together this exhibition on American Cool, and you've been teaching a course on the concept for some 20 years. Yet, it's still a tough question to answer. What does it mean to say that someone is cool?

  • 13:08:14

    DINERSTEINWell, it's a tough answer, I think, for good reasons. It's something of a mystery and something of a myth. So, we keep using it until the meaning gets uncovered. In short, I would say cool is a supreme compliment when we say someone is cool. And then it carries a social charge of rebellion, mystery, charisma, and it sort of suggests some sort of important inchoate social change that that person represents.

  • 13:08:45

    NNAMDIPhilip, why do you think it's so difficult to define this idea of being cool?

  • 13:08:50

    KENNICOTTWell, because it's a cultural concept. It's not a scientific one. And cultural concepts are always going to be kind of porous. That's actually the strength of them. You know, it's not like those machines in the supermarket where you pour your coins in and it sorts everything out for you neatly by nickels, dimes and quarters. In a way, the work that it does is more important than the accuracy or the kind of iron clad definitions that it provides. So the process of thinking about who's cool becomes, in fact, the importance of the idea more than whether or not somebody is or isn't cool, by some kind of hard and fast rule.

  • 13:09:25

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. What do you mean when you say somebody is cool? What do you think everyone else means when they say someone is cool? 800-433-8850. Who would make your list of the coolest Americans of all time? You can also send us email to Send us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, and join the conversation there. Before we go any farther, Phil Kennicott, this show is as much a photography exhibit as anything else.

  • 13:09:57

    NNAMDIIt features a veritable who's who of photographers of the past century. Can you talk a little bit about some of the images that struck you?

  • 13:10:03

    KENNICOTTYeah, there's some magnificent photographers in here. Paul Strand, Diane Arbus, later photographers, Phillipe Halsman. You know, this runs a range. You've got images by Steichen, of Mencken, that go back to the beginnings of celebrity photography. You've got very moody images. There's a wonderful one of Lauren Bacall that just kind of encapsulates everything of film noir in this one image. She's just as sexy as can be, leaning against a wall. It looks like she just stepped out of, you know...

  • 13:10:34

    NNAMDIAlways got that hand in the pocket, too, doesn't she?

  • 13:10:35

    KENNICOTT...yeah. She's -- she has a pose, and it's an iconic pose that you instantly recognize from her, and that's one of the definitions that Joel and Frank had. So that photograph perfectly represents it. But then, you also, what I like about this exhibition is that it extends the question back into the 19th century. And so, one of the earliest images you have is of Walt Whitman. And I think it's actually made from a Daguerrotype. It's not an actual photograph itself, but it's an image that came from a photographic process.

  • 13:11:05

    KENNICOTTAnd it shows him with his hand on his hip, and he's standing there in a kind of floppy hat. And he's posed in such a way that it's not a 19th century pose. It's not a Victorian pose. It is cool. It is somehow, even though it's not quite the cool yet. It's not Lester Young. It's not the 1940s. It is connected, and what I like about the show is how -- using photography to show the historical breadth of the idea and kind of the archaeology of the concept.

  • 13:11:33

    NNAMDIMany of the icons we expect to find in an exhibition of cool are here. But some of these images may not be very well known. Philip, can you talk about that?

  • 13:11:43

    KENNICOTTWell, you know, there are a lot of people here who I don't recognize. There's a Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanamuko. I mean, I butchered his name. I didn't recognize it, was fascinated to learn about him. You know, is an extraordinary person. And there he is, in a very early, one of the earliest photographs in the show. And then, because it's such a broad exhibition, it's got everything from Buster Keaton to Susan Sontag. So it's got film stars to philosophers. And unless you know absolutely everything about everyone, you're gonna come into this exhibition and you're gonna find names that you didn't know.

  • 13:12:18

    NNAMDIAnd even some of the names that you really do know, you will find photographs of them that you may not have seen before. The Bogart photo, I'd never seen that anyplace before.

  • 13:12:27

    KENNICOTTI hadn't. That's a very striking image. And there are some really shocking ones, even ones that kind of capture, you know, stars in their iconic poses, still have a real power. There's a Phillipe Halsman picture of Clint Eastwood and he's holding this enormous handgun and it's almost coming down, facing directly into the camera. And it's still -- it's a really kind of shocking image that I find sort of startling, even now, after knowing Clint Eastwood for all these years.

  • 13:12:52

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're discussing the exhibit currently at the National Portrait Gallery called "American Cool" with Philip Kennicott, Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning art and architecture critic. And Joel Dinerstein, who is co-curator and co-author of "American Cool." His partner on this exhibition is Frank Goodyear, co-director of the Bowden College Museum of Art. We're asking for your calls at 800-433-8850. Which cultural icons inspired you? You can go to our website,, and you will see a slide show of images from this exhibition.

  • 13:13:26

    NNAMDIJoel, people say any list of 100 Americans is subjective. What were the criteria that you used?

  • 13:13:32

    DINERSTEINI actually disagree with that statement. I think that any set of cultural historians who worked on American culture in the 20th century would probably agree on two thirds of the subjects. The other third, I would admit, it's subjective. It would sort of be who decided and who made the decisions. Certainly Frank and I considered 500 people and had so much trouble that we have an alt 100 list at the end.

  • 13:13:57

    NNAMDIOh, I checked that out. Yes.

  • 13:13:57

    DINERSTEIN100 people we thought were, you know, sort of, not even honorable mention, but we thought long and hard about them, and I thought that they deserved recognition. So, to that extent, I think that it's not quite subjective. The exhibit is really about those icons who made a generational impact, you know, on those people who were, say, 17 to 25 in a given generation. It's really about, in the 50s, people like Elvis and James Dean and Marlon Brando. In the 60s, Dylan and Hendrix. In the 80s, Madonna and Prince. To some extent, we're always trying to look for them.

  • 13:14:36

    DINERSTEINWhat I'm always researching and teaching is about which figures represented transgressive or social change, and then became what I call the successful rebels of American culture. Their rebellions succeeded in many ways and became, certainly, if not mainstream, then quite accepted. So the way they were going is the way the culture went. So, that is how -- that was how our decisions were made, and some of it is actually traced by historical testimony. I mean, people call Elvis and Brando and Dean, Miles Davis cool. And some of it is just reading through the analysis and the -- what these people represented.

  • 13:15:14

    DINERSTEINMy two word phrase is really that they represent inchoate change, which is something Phil brought up earlier. It's a cultural concept. And so there's no ideology. This person is sort of -- represents a path and carves out some new cultural space. And you want to follow that person through it. And depending on when you grew up, you can identify those figures.

  • 13:15:34

    NNAMDIWashington D.C.'s conceit, as far as I'm concerned, is that in the alt 100, you see the name Chuck Brown, who we tend to think of as a local Washington figure. But there, there he is in the alt 100. Joel, there are 100 people included in this exhibition. Why 100? Why not 50? Why not 150?

  • 13:15:54

    DINERSTEINThat's a great question, and we just -- Frank and I decided that's partly logistics. We knew the size of the galleries. We wanted to have a certain amount of room and space to look at these beautiful portraits. And we thought it was a good round number. The cool 100. I will say that a couple of times toward the end, it became really difficult to -- people would bring up certain names that we hadn't considered or suddenly thought that we needed in there. And we would say, well, should we do 101, or 102? And we decided that would be a slippery slope.

  • 13:16:25

    DINERSTEINYou know, then we'll just start putting in whoever we want. And so we said, look, it's good to have structure. We'll stick to 100.

  • 13:16:30

    NNAMDILet's talk about the origins of the term cool. Or, for that matter, we have a listener, Deb, in Arlington, VA, who wants to talk about that. Deb, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:16:41

    DEBThanks you very much. A number of years ago, I did some research tracing the concept back. And I believe that, from everything that I read, that it may well have come from some of the peoples of western Africa, where Oshun was the river goddess. And associated with her was the color blue. And it was the concept of keeping one's cool was very highly valued in some of those societies. And in as much as many of the slaves were brought over here were from west African tribes. One can find remains of blue beads in certain diggings from various plantation houses.

  • 13:17:43

    DEBAnd it would certainly be incumbent on people who were enslaved to keep their cool in the face of all the degradation heaped upon them.

  • 13:17:52

    NNAMDIWell, you know, Deb, Joel did spend some time exploring the roots of cool. Joel, tell us what you found.

  • 13:18:01

    DINERSTEINWell, Deb is absolutely right. And she's talking about some of the research of Robert Farris Thompson. And much of cool comes from Yoruba culture and terms like etutu, (sp?) which means spiritual balance. And Thompson found that there are 35 West and Central African languages with this concept of not just keeping your cool, but trying to attempt to have this ideal mode of being in the world, of having balance. And to some extent, that comes through jazz. That's why the origins of cool, as a concept and as a term, come from jazz and African Americans who need to keep their cool during the Jim Crow Era as a way of being.

  • 13:18:41

    DINERSTEINSo, she's absolutely right. I would say there's also -- so, there's two branches. There's the African branch, that comes through African American culture, and, in fact, retains all of its meanings today, in many ways, in an African American vernacular that is different than how we use cool kind of superficially in American culture. But the other branch is actually from Anglo society, from England. I've done etymological research and there are definitions of cool meaning calm defiance going back to 1710 and 1720 in England.

  • 13:19:16

    DINERSTEINAnd to some extent, cool means calm defiance. So we have this interesting convergence of African American and kind of Anglo American, in certain ways, masculinity as a way of projecting sort of toughness. You have this sort of calm defiance that Phil spoke about earlier, that's even in that very early Whitman Daguerrotype, image from the Daguerrotype.

  • 13:19:37

    NNAMDIYou point out that the term cool has endured while many others have gone the way of the flesh, so to speak. Groovy, peachy, or the bomb, here yesterday, gone today. Cool somehow endures, but in your view Phil, does the meaning of the term itself evolve as the society itself evolves?

  • 13:19:58

    KENNICOTTWell, you know, certainly the exhibition shows the concept in evolution throughout it. You know, the cool in Lester Young's day is not necessarily the cool in our time. You know, there's a greater commercialization of it. You can't have a sitcom like Happy Days in the 1970s and expect that the cool is the same concept that it was back in the early days of jazz.

  • 13:20:18

    KENNICOTTAnd I think that it actually is a more coherent concept at the beginning of this exhibition than it is at the end of it when it -- a lot of different things have been grafted onto the cool. And it's come to represent in the loosest sense this sort of generic honorific so that everything is cool or anything can be cool. Or slightly more specifically just a high degree of independence, more individuality.

  • 13:20:45

    KENNICOTTWhen I was looking at the show, I wrote a little bit about this and I talked about whether or not, given what the cool has become, is the cool itself cool. Is it a category that we really want to see as a great contribution at this point? I mean, clearly it was in the 1940s and the '50s when it has this coherence. But now does it represent something different? Does it represent a disengagement from cultural life that isn't in fact a particularly constructive or useful thing?

  • 13:21:13

    KENNICOTTI notice as the cool sounds tautological but that -- I kept coming back to the idea that we mix up the honorific quality with the specificity of what it used to mean 50, 60, 70 years ago.

  • 13:21:25

    NNAMDITalk to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the exhibit, American Cool. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850. What do originality, style, charisma, rebellion have to do with coolness in your view? And who do you think is cool, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:03

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about American cool in general and specifically about the exhibit American Cool now at the National Portrait Gallery through September 7 with Joel Dinerstein. He is the co-curator and co-author of the exhibit. And his partner on this exhibition is Frank Goodyear, co-director of the Bowden College Museum of Art. Joel joins us from the studios of WWNO in New Orleans where he's the director of the American Studies Program and a professor of English at Tulane University.

  • 13:24:32

    NNAMDIIn our Washington studio with us is Phil Kennicott. He is the Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning art and architecture critic. You can call us, 800-433-8850. Why do you think the term cool endures? Philip, it seems any attempt to define and to list and categorize anything invites people to question the choices. What do you think about the choices in this exhibit?

  • 13:24:55

    KENNICOTTOh, I think given the way that the concept (sp?) has been defined the choices are smart. And as I said, I think the choices are much more -- much harder to argue with as you go back further in time in the '40s and '50s and '60s. There's always -- you know the concept of cool is so powerful and it's such an attractive idea that you always want to kind of sneak your people in.

  • 13:25:19

    KENNICOTTI spent this weekend writing a story about the great African American soprano Leontyne Price. And I was wondering -- because I knew I was going to be having this conversation -- is she cool? She's not on the list. I don't think she's on the alt 100 list either. But if one thinks about her career, she went through many of the signature kind of experiences that define, you know, some of the people here who are definition of the cool.

  • 13:25:48

    KENNICOTTYou know, she was born in 1927 in Mississippi. She endures an astonishing amount of racism in her career. She's making her way in opera houses in Europe and the United States in the '50s, '60s and '70s. NBC refuses to broadcast her production of Tosca in parts of the south. Some of the stations declined to carry it. So she knew racism. She went through that defining part of the cool, which is to sort of experience, you know, the oppressive feeling of social forces. And she did it with incredible grace. I mean, a regal coolness. There's no other way to describe her.

  • 13:26:24

    KENNICOTTBut even though her affect (sp?) is quite cool offstage, she's an opera singer, so she is out there kind of falling apart in a very hot sort of volcanic way in terms of what she does artistically. And so you wonder whether or not the cool can ever be extended kind of beyond popular culture into high culture. Or is by definition high culture just not cool?

  • 13:26:48

    NNAMDII'm glad you raise that question because, Joel Dinerstein, I read where you spent a lot of time talking to scholars in all fields before you put this together. But one of the categories that seemed to be either absent or very represented only minutely is scholars themselves. Not a lot of scholars in this exhibit.

  • 13:27:11

    DINERSTEINWell, not a lot of scholars are cool (laugh) in the first place.

  • 13:27:15

    NNAMDIOh, come on.

  • 13:27:16

    DINERSTEINLook, believe me. I would like to think that more of them are, including myself but it's the nature of the occupation that you're not cool. You're studying cool. It's how I start the first day of my class. I say, look, day one, this is not a how-to class and I'm not cool because or else, to quote Woody Allen, "people who don't do teach." And so if I was cool I wouldn't teach cool.

  • 13:27:40

    DINERSTEINBut actually what this gets to is a much -- I think this is a problem of vocabulary more than it is a problem of popular culture. In a sense by definition, high-culture performers are not cool in a cultural sense, even if they may have the affect (sp?) and the aspect of cool as Leontyne Price did. And that is because in a way cool represents what we don't have, which is a framework of how we evaluate great popular culture.

  • 13:28:08

    DINERSTEINSo we have this notion of popular culture and either you think it means something superficial and unimportant or you think it's important because it's popular. I would defend every person's exhibit as being one of the great artists in American culture. And to talk about Brando or Fred Astaire or Madonna or Jimmy Hendrix as pop culture figures cheats both their artistic accomplishment and our investment in them.

  • 13:28:33

    DINERSTEINJimmy Hendrix is one of the great artists of the 20th century. Marlon Brando is one of the great artists of the 20th century. Fred Astaire is one of the great artists of the 20th century. Madonna's one of the great artists of the 20th century. But we don't -- we have not yet come up -- and I actually mean this as a call to action for scholars -- we do not have an adequate framework for discussing popular culture the way that we do for high culture.

  • 13:28:55

    DINERSTEINAnd so to some extent cool is the word. It's -- I think one of the reasons it's lasted so long, we hang so much on this word. Because what we want to say about a figure that is so meaningful to us, Americans are really invested in the people they elevate as cool. Elvis, Madonna. For me it was Bruce Springsteen. Whoever it was or whoever it is, we call it cool because it's this supreme compliment that represents some sort of inchoate importance, mythic importance.

  • 13:29:24

    DINERSTEINAnd so in a sense my work on cool is about trying to both recuperate and analyze what we mean by this. Because in the meantime, I have not found a very useful framework for discussing popular culture that is not popular culture. It's art. So to take an example, Fred Astaire was thought to be one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century. But because he worked in a commercial medium like film, he's not respected the way Baryshnikov was or Martha Graham was. And his influence on world culture, not to mention on films and dance and acting and music, is enormous.

  • 13:30:03

    DINERSTEINAnd so I think this is a problem, again, of vocabulary and framework and terms and how we see our own popular culture. And lastly I would say, I think we devalue our American popular culture by not recognizing its power and its influence and its meaning to us.

  • 13:30:21

    NNAMDIThoughts on that Phil Kennecott?

  • 13:30:22

    KENNICOTTOh, I certainly agree with that in a sense that I -- you know, we do too often devalue pop culture by applying to it the wrong concepts. I think however that, you know, the caller mentioned the idea of some of these notions that become the cool coming out of (unintelligible) the culture in this African inheritance. There's a pretty large inheritance from what we might call high art in the concept of cool as well, ideas of virtuosity, you know, being extremely good. So good that you can do what you do and then walk back into it all over again without breaking a sweat.

  • 13:30:58

    KENNICOTTI mean, this is the -- this is what made, you know, pianists like Franz Liszt great in the 19th century. And he was -- you know, he was a sex symbol. And he was probably what we would call cool. So I think there's probably much more of these -- you know, of a high culture inheritance that's playing a role in the background here maybe than we're giving credit to.

  • 13:31:17

    NNAMDIWell, Dirk Bogarde certainly looked cool when he played Franz Liszt in the movie "Song Without End," (laugh) one of my favorite movies of all time. Getting back to the practical issues here, Joel Dinerstein, ultimately you had to make some tough choices about who was in and who was out. And in some cases, some figures represented a larger group or Emilio (sp?) . And in asking you to talk about that, I'll quote a tweet we got from Lis. "Dean Martin, cooler than the other side of the pillow." He didn't make the list but in a way, Sinatra stands in for him, does he not?

  • 13:31:49

    DINERSTEINTotally. I'm so glad that that person tweeted. That was the example I was going to use. So Frank Sinatra, powerful, enormously influential, great singer, you know, very cool. One could argue that Dean Martin is if not equal in power and in terms of his influence as a singer, although he was actually a great singer, belongs in the exhibit. But we only had 100 slots. So certain figures stand in for a certain cohort. So Frank Sinatra's one example for the Rat Pack and particularly Dean Martin.

  • 13:32:20

    DINERSTEINThe other example is really -- I mean, there are many examples but another good example is Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters stands in for almost all blues musicians. I mean, Bessie Smith is in the exhibit as well but Muddy Waters stands for an entire migration from rural to urban blues, from Mississippi to Chicago, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers. And to some extent Howlin' Wolf could certainly have been in this exhibit. And so could have a couple of other figures, but we have 100 slots.

  • 13:32:50

    DINERSTEINAnd I really wanted Muddy Waters for a lot of reasons. First of all, by the way, the photo of Muddy Waters is a beautiful photo. And like many photos in the exhibit, we found them in archives. We made a concerted attempt to find photos that were either rarely seen or not well known. We tried not to pick the iconic image. And many of them -- because Frank and I are both culture historians -- we found in archives.

  • 13:33:16

    DINERSTEINAnd the Muddy Waters we found in Institute of Jazz archives at Rutgers. And he is just standing there in a suit with thin lapels and a cigarette. And it looks like he could be a preacher, he could be a mob boss. He is a very powerful charismatic man. So on one hand it was the -- it wasn't the choice, the photograph that determined it but we did love how the photo projected muddy waters' power.

  • 13:33:41

    DINERSTEINThe second thing, I really want to talk about this in terms of how much attention, for example, the Beatles' 50th -- the 50th anniversary of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan has gotten a lot of attention this year. And when people tell the story of rock 'n roll, the way in which they gloss over the importance of Muddy Waters and the Chicago blues scene is very upsetting to me personally. It's also imprecise. And there is no Beatles or Stones or any of the British bands without blues and their love of it. That's how they got there.

  • 13:34:09

    DINERSTEINBut to be really specific, Muddy Waters, with one song, his song "Rolling Stone," that is the name of the magazine Rolling Stone. It's why the Rolling Stones are named the Rolling Stones. And it is the name of one of the great songs of all time, Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." And that's just one song.

  • 13:34:28

    DINERSTEINSo this is also true -- as I said, that's true about the cohort but I just wanted to take a moment to go into sort of the kind of narrative history that this exhibit is trying to tell, particularly as regards race in music and culture. And therefore if cool is an African American concept, it also brings with it all of this music and expressive culture that I think gets kind of somewhat evaded when we wind up telling certain stories.

  • 13:34:56

    NNAMDIRobert in Washington, D.C. wants to talk about cool as a concept. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:35:02

    ROBERTOh hey, Kojo. How are you?

  • 13:35:03

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 13:35:05

    ROBERTBig fan, first time I've called.

  • 13:35:07

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:35:08

    ROBERTYou know, I am, first of all, known to my children as the anti-cool, you know. And I rant about this and when I heard the show it was like, yes, I can finally rant to the American public. But to me cool is a concept beyond morality. I mean, you can be a bad person and still be cool. If it means, you know, a calm defiance, which I think -- and certainly a big part of the meaning of the word, you could be -- I mean, Hitler could've been calmly defiant of, I don't know, Stalin or something.

  • 13:35:40

    ROBERTSo, you know, I think it has this kind of dark side which is amoral. And it certainly -- I grew up in the '70s and, you know, the cool quote unquote "cool" people at my local high school smoked pot, you know, dropped acid, etcetera and they were cool. And I was opposed to that kind of behavior so I remain to this day, when I force my children to do their homework rather than watch television, you know, the anti-cool. So...

  • 13:36:05

    NNAMDIWell, you raise a number of interesting issues. And forgive me if I select the wrong one but the one that occurred to me when I watched this exhibit, Joel Dinerstein and Phil Kennicott, is that I don't see a lot of people who are considered cool who are identified with conservative ideas or philosophy.

  • 13:36:25

    KENNICOTTThere's a good reason for that. For -- besides -- some people who might be in the exhibit are John Wayne and Hank...

  • 13:36:32

    NNAMDIJohn Wayne. I thought of that, yes.

  • 13:36:33

    DINERSTEIN...and Hank Williams. And there's a few others that will come to mind in a second because I always sort of think of them. And in a group, to some extent, Gary Cooper but not in the same way. But what the caller's talking about is, first of all, cool is in a sense about admiring people who have engaged their dark side. It is what the term has meant historically. And sometimes that's a good thing because what they're going against are things that are unethical in society, whether that means racial oppression or gender oppression or things like that.

  • 13:37:07

    DINERSTEINBut sometimes it means that your darker desires and that sort of means that there's a lot of people in the exhibit who did a lot of drugs or did a lot of, you know, sort of things that we find reprehensible and often were still considered cool. It's not a problem necessarily for cool. It's why the term was invented. I mean, cool shows up in the '40s and '50s when we live in a very repressive society in which you can't really talk or think about sort of sex and problems of violence. And so cool actually comes out of that milieu.

  • 13:37:40

    DINERSTEINIn terms of conservative thought I would say that cool was mostly a term used by people who thought of themselves as progressive or about social change or from the left. And that changed probably in the early '80s, maybe the late '70s. But those are the people who most use the term.

  • 13:37:59

    DINERSTEINAnd the last thing I would say to the caller is just, you know, be a good father. It's better to actually have love and happiness in your life than to be cool. So, you know, you can choose how you want to go but cool has its costs. And cool actually has always been associated with the dark side.

  • 13:38:15

    KENNICOTTAnd, you know, I was thinking about the internal critique of the cool. I mean, along with sort of defining it, there's an uneasiness about the cool even among the cool going back farther than we probably realize. You know, the famous Gwendolyn Brooks poem, "We Real Cool, We Left School" that has that horrible ending, we jazz June, we die soon. That's 1959, 1960 I think.

  • 13:38:37

    KENNICOTTSo that's a fairly early acknowledgement that part of what is being associated with the term cool goes far beyond just the notion of a kind of virtuosity, individuality. And is now being associated with forms of self destruction, of a dark side.

  • 13:38:54

    NNAMDIHendrix died at 27 and I was thinking of a poem by the poet who used to be known as Don L. Lee and then became Haki Madhubuti who has a poem called "But He Was Cool or He Even Stopped For Green Lights in which he says that, this individual was so cool that he did not realize at the time in the '60s that to be black meant to be very, very hot. So there are a lot of interpretations of this. But Robert, thank you very much for your call. I want to go to Joanne in Falls Church, Va. Joanne, you're on the air. go ahead, please.

  • 13:39:25

    JOANNEThanks, Kojo. And hello to everybody. It should also be stated that Kojo's very cool.

  • 13:39:31

    NNAMDIYeah, right. Tell my children that. Please tell my children that. But go ahead.

  • 13:39:37

    JOANNEIs Jimmy Hendrix the stand in for Richie Havens? Because Richie Havens is totally cool. And when I went to see the exhibit, the only person I walked out wondering about was where is Richie Havens. So please tell me he was on the list.

  • 13:39:54


  • 13:39:54

    DINERSTEINWell, I will -- yeah, I would just interrupt to say, I loved Richie Havens. Richie Havens was very cool. One of the ways that we could narrow down this list is we made something called the decade rule. And the person had to be influential for more than a decade, had to have a high public profile for more than a decade. And that's why Richie Havens is not in the exhibit because really he didn't. Much as he recorded very well all of his life, he really didn't have one outside of about 64 to 74.

  • 13:40:24

    NNAMDIMost of these figures, being cultural icons, Joel, have thousands of images of them circulating. How did you choose a single photo to represent someone?

  • 13:40:35

    DINERSTEINWell, the two-word term that I use is we were looking for relaxed intensity. This is actually a phrase that's much used by jazz musicians. That's the optimal form of performance when you are on stage and improvising with other musicians, that you want to have a certain relaxed intensity. You have to be thinking at a very high, very fast level. But your body has to be relaxed and to some extent you have to have created in your skills a sort of calm center. And so what we were looking for is, if -- photographs that would show that. And to some extent, for example, the Bob Dylan photo, which is this beautiful Richard Avedon photo, which is him walking in Central Park.

  • 13:41:17

    DINERSTEINDylan shows -- he's looking almost sternly, but not quite. There's a little bit of playfulness in his expression. And he just looks like someone who's really intense, who you would want to meet. But if you met him, you would have to bring your A game. You know, this is an intense guy. And so that's why there are very few smiles really in the exhibit. You know, they're -- because that's not how you show -- that's how you show eagerness and warmth. And cool is the opposite in terms of affect. And we wanted to show, the Lauren Bacall photo we discussed earlier, relaxed intensity is what we were after. And that was the ideal for the photographs. It's true about Prince...

  • 13:41:58

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that there were cases in which you couldn't find an appropriate photo, you couldn't include that person. I understand George Carlin was a case like that.

  • 13:42:07

    DINERSTEINYeah, he was. George Carlin belongs in the exhibit. And we looked at hundreds of photos. And in every one of them, for some reason, when he takes a still photo, he always makes this goofball face.

  • 13:42:19

    NNAMDII noticed that, after I read it...

  • 13:42:19

    DINERSTEINLike he just pops out his eyes and makes this sort of weird cartoon face. And you got to look cool some of the time to be in the exhibit. And I'm sure he did, but we couldn't find a photo that accurately projected that.

  • 13:42:34

    NNAMDIAnd when I thought about it, I think that every photo I've seen of George Carlin, he was making some kind of face or, you know, the -- I'm afraid that's all the time we have in this segment. But we'll be taking a short break. And when we come back, we'll be continuing. So keep calling. 800-433-8850. Do you think cool is something that can be acquired or is it inborn? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website,, and you will see a slideshow of the exhibit, "American Cool," currently at the National Portrait Gallery. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:45:01

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about "American Cool," the photo exhibit currently at the National Portrait Gallery now through September 7. Joining us in studio is Philip Kennicott. He's the Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-Winning art and architecture critic. Joining us from studios in New Orleans is Joel Dinerstein. He is the co-curator and co-author of the exhibit. He's also the director of American Studies Program and a professor of English at Tulane University in New Orleans. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 13:45:34

    NNAMDIJoel, we got a tweet from Raymond who says, "Cool is a shifting balance of ignorance, marketing, social cohesion, curiosity and ideological affinities, but mostly marketing. I bring up the mostly marketing part to talk about the fact that in your view, cool has a lot to do with the concept of originality. And there was at least one individual who was not in this show because, in your view, this individual was really a product of marketing. And that was Britney Spears."

  • 13:46:06

    DINERSTEINBritney Spears -- if you look at the difference between someone like Britney Spears and someone like Madonna -- Madonna is an artist who makes incredibly interesting creative choices all the time. And if you watch her documentary, you can see just in a sense the ways in which she thinks about creativity and projection and message, as well as of course music and dance, and new syntheses of various kinds of music and dance cultures -- gay culture, Latin culture, African-American culture. Britney Spears just, if you watch her, she seems like a cog in a machine.

  • 13:46:39

    DINERSTEINNot only is she not a songwriter or that good a singer, she seems like a sexual object who has in effect been placed inside a sort of, to ironically use this phrase, inside a sex machine, which is to say a commercial machine meant to sort of produce a sexual response. In fact, a better -- in a sense, a more useful answer, a more useful comparison than Britney Spears is actually Lady Gaga, who a lot of people -- and we interviewed a lot of people who think she's cool. And she's not in it. I'm not going to evaluate or judge her artistic or her musical endeavors. But she is so derivative of Madonna to me, that she doesn't have the originality necessary to have made the list.

  • 13:47:23

    DINERSTEINEverybody chosen had carved out a new cultural space in American culture and was a fresh icon. Their like had not been seen before and, in fact -- they would, in fact, have many imitators. So that was important to the exhibit.

  • 13:47:38

    NNAMDIPhil Kennicott, how important is originality when one is assessing art, or for that matter, as you do, architecture?

  • 13:47:47

    KENNICOTTYou know, it was extremely important back in the middle of last century in terms of the things that I write about -- architecture and art and music. I sense that the term is less important to critics recently than it was, say, in the 1950's and 1960's, in part because a lot of the things that I follow, which are decidedly not the cool forms of creative expression, kind of reached a peak of experimentation. And they've gone through sort of periods now of reflection and kind of putting themselves back together and playing with older styles. There's -- I guess one way to put it is there's a, you know, conservatism in certain aesthetic areas is now cool again -- backward-looking aesthetics.

  • 13:48:31

    KENNICOTTI think it plays less of a role. It's an interesting problem, however, when you're looking at a popular culture because, as Joel says, they use this decade rule. And how do we know, now, for an artist who's performing in the current moment, whether or not that is going to be seen in a decade as having been original at this particular moment? There's a reflective quality to kind of coming to conclusions about what somebody's contribution really was that necessarily makes us look back over a longer period of time.

  • 13:49:00

    NNAMDISpeaking of looking back over a longer period of time, Joel, as the consumers of popular culture and pacemakers -- people who really can't look back over a long period of time -- youth are the center -- at the center of cool. Can you talk about that and the transgressive edge to many if not all of these figures.

  • 13:49:19

    DINERSTEINIn a way, I would differentiate between sort of a broad category of youth and narrow it down to, say, 17 to 25. That late coming-of-age period is when a given generation chooses certain iconic figures that represent rebellion, transgression and social change. So, yes, I would say that cool generally, new figures of cool historically emerged from some sort of interesting combination of youth culture, popular culture and African-American culture. And that changed a little bit toward the end of the century, but not entirely. Hip hop was still sort of one of the main grounds by which that happened.

  • 13:49:59

    DINERSTEINSo you would think that when youth makes these kinds of choices, that they might be ephemeral or superficial. But by and large, popular culture will create figures, will in a sense elevate -- well, let me take -- let me stop and say that I think that a given cohort of a generation will choose the figures they need to in a sense dream upon, right?

  • 13:50:25

    DINERSTEINThat the figures who create new and interesting syntheses -- and every person in the exhibit is someone who created a new synthesis within their art form or field of endeavor. I mean, take someone like Prince, who managed to combine the Beatles' melodic sensibility, James Brown both on stage and his own funk, P-Funk, and yet the songwriting of Joni Mitchell...

  • 13:50:45

    NNAMDIAnd the image of Little Richard.

  • 13:50:48

    DINERSTEIN...the image of Little Richard, and the songwriting of Joni Mitchell. He has a song called "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." It's like, one could not predict somebody synthesizing that -- that range of influences -- not only that, into someone like Prince, who is also a great guitarist, the master of the stage, et cetera, et cetera. And in some sense, that's what the people will find. Generally sort of intellectual youth or even just youth looking for guidance will find those figures. And they will not be the marketed figures. I mean sometimes there's a convergence of what the market, in sense, is pushing and what in fact sort of the youth between 17 and 25 want.

  • 13:51:29

    DINERSTEINBut often enough, they will in fact choose figures who are in effect --specifically because they are not marketed. So I don't -- I think this is why the important question is who's cool and not what's cool. What the market is interested in is cool as a term meaning, what's going to be next? You know, what's the next thing? What can we sell? What's in?

  • 13:51:49

    DINERSTEINAnd in fact, none of those terms were associated with cool until really the early seventies or the late 1960s. In the forties and fifties and early sixties, cool meant individuality and a certain relaxed intensity and mystery, all of those things. So it's kind of a late change in cool -- well, late -- sort of middle change, that those terms became associated with it.

  • 13:52:11

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here's Gary in Bethesda, Md. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:15

    GARYHi, thank you. And what a great exhibit this is. I've seen it twice. Love the book. Also just as a side tour, on a visit to Maine recently, I was up at Bowdoin College, where one of your collaborators, Mr. Green -- Goodyear, is it -- has done a...

  • 13:52:29


  • 13:52:30 about -- exhibit about the 1950s on 52nd Street in New York, all jazz all the time, incredible -- with a nice soundtrack in the background in the museum gallery itself. I don't know if you've talked about this yet, but just the fact that this show is all photography, such a 20th century gallery of cool. It talks a lot about photography. I like the way you mounted the pictures of Bogey and Bacall right near each other, right next to each other, almost looking at each other. But it also raised the idea, Bogey was cool. I don't know if he was cool in the forties and fifties, when it came out. He sure got cool by the sixties and seventies and later.

  • 13:53:10

    GARYWhat about contemporary cool? Do -- is cool a lifetime thing? Or is it cool during that decade or two decades that you identify them in?

  • 13:53:19

    NNAMDIAnd then I want Phil Kennicott to talk about photography. But go ahead, please, first, Joel.

  • 13:53:24

    DINERSTEINThat's a great question. And I'm glad you saw Frank's exhibit. In general -- actually I sort of like, blanked -- I apologize for this, I sort of blanked on the question for a second.

  • 13:53:38

    NNAMDIGo ahead, again, Gary.

  • 13:53:41

    GARYYeah, well, no, the basic question is, first of all, how photography plays as...

  • 13:53:47


  • 13:53:47

    GARY...and also is cool a lifetime thing? Or do you get cool for a little while, then you fall out of cool? I thought everybody...

  • 13:53:53

    NNAMDIIn the exhibit, you had to be cool for more than a decade. But go ahead.

  • 13:53:56

    DINERSTEINRight. Both of those are great questions. To some extent Frank Goodyear's wonderful, great perception early in, when we planned this exhibit, is that cool and photography, in a sense, emerge and evolve at the same time. And so the importance of image to someone's cool in one way or another is central to our understanding of it. And that you can see sort of throughout the exhibit. So these, you have these parallel developments. And that's why so much of the exhibit is actually black and white, because sort of art photography or fine art photograph was very much in black and white for most of the twentieth century.

  • 13:54:32

    DINERSTEINThe other question is, that's why we tried to measure generational impact. I mean, if you talk about somebody like Elvis, certainly by the time, you know, Elvis is the Vegas Elvis in the seventies, for a lot of people he's not very cool. And for example, for a lot of my students, you know, Elvis is not cool. They don't understand or know much about his impact. So we're trying to -- we were trying to measure sort of the impact at the moment of their emergence and their artistic production. And then, the question is, did that person -- that icon remain cool for that generation for the rest of their lives?

  • 13:55:06

    DINERSTEINSo the people who grew up with Elvis in the post-war era, for them Elvis never stopped being cool, no matter what choices he made. They were -- he was their cool figure. And I mean, to be personal about it, I will say that, you know, I -- basically my major cool figure, and I had several, was Bruce Springsteen. And there's certainly lots of choices Springsteen makes that I would rather he didn't. But he doesn't stop being that transformative figure for me when I was 17 and 18 and 19.

  • 13:55:33

    NNAMDIPhil Kennicott, the photography aspect of this. Our caller says it's so twentieth century. Do you think that in the future we'll still be able to enjoy photo exhibits like this. Or must the digital world enter into the equation?

  • 13:55:45

    KENNICOTTWell, the first thing I'd say is that there is a wonderful range in the photographs represented. You've got everything from Carl Van Vechten to Richard Avedon. These are remarkably different photograph, you know, photographers. It's not a monochromatic show, even though it's mainly black and white. It's, you know, got a huge aesthetic range. So I wouldn't fault the photographs in that way. And as Joel said, the idea of photography in the cool seemed to be conjoined chronologically.

  • 13:56:11

    KENNICOTTAnd I think it -- one of the reasons is that photography allowed more and more ordinary people to in a sense craft their own self expression, in a way that having a, you know, an oil painting made of you in the 18th century. That wasn't a means of self expression that was, you know, readily available to ordinary people. That was a fairly aristocratic or, you know, limited to the wealthy. So photography becomes intimately entwined with how we present ourselves. And I think you see that very much in these images.

  • 13:56:41

    KENNICOTTI, you know, it would have been a very different exhibition, so I don't want to say that they should have done this, because of course that would have been an entirely different thing. But in looking at their exhibition, the only thing that I was sort of wishing for was that we had more of the actual artistic contribution of the people. Maybe one could do an exhibition where they were represented not by the images of them, but rather represented by their work.

  • 13:57:02

    KENNICOTTAnd there, you know, there are a lot of artists in this -- Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol and Georgia O'Keeffe. One can see potentially allowing, in a sense, the work to speak for itself rather than the crafted image of the artist him or herself.

  • 13:57:14

    NNAMDIAnd Joel Dinerstein, we're almost out of time, but you have to answer this question from John in Baltimore, Md. John, you only have 30 seconds. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:57:22

    JOHNGood afternoon. The question is, as posed by Tower or Power in 1973, what is hip? Or specifically, in this case, whither hip or (word?)

  • 13:57:29

    NNAMDISometimes hipness is what it ain't. Is -- Joel Dinerstein, is sometimes coolness what it ain't?

  • 13:57:35

    DINERSTEINAll right. Hip and cool were first different concepts in the forties and fifties. And if you were hip, that meant you were aware of new things, about how things worked. And I mean that in the sense of corruption and sort of like propaganda and lies as well as new art and music, et cetera. Cool meant being relaxed and sort of having this charismatic self-possession. So at some point, those terms became conflated. So hip still means -- what is hip is about, are you aware? Are you hip to the new -- to what is new on a deep level. And if you think hip is still valuable, that's what it still means.

  • 13:58:09

    DINERSTEINBut cool means that you as a person, if someone thinks that of you, have this charismatic self-possession. You're relaxed in the world and people (word?) .

  • 13:58:16

    NNAMDICool is more lasting. Joel Dinerstein is co-curator and co-author of "American Cool," the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. Phil Kennicott is the Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-Winning art and architectural critic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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